As government leaders took the helm in steering the nation through the most disruptive global challenge in recent history — the COVID-19 pandemic — it reinforced the necessity of taking a long-term look at the future to improve resiliency and prepare for both likely and unlikely events.
This has been the traditional and important focus of strategic foresight, a holistic and rigorous approach for envisioning future scenarios to better anticipate new obstacles and steer toward safety. Strategic foresight is a critical ingredient of building enterprise resiliency; it enables organizations to visualize, explore and prepare for the unimaginable.
The challenge, even removing rare yet epoch-making events like global pandemics, is that the pace of change continues to accelerate. So, while it’s increasingly important for federal agencies to stay ahead of the curve, it’s also more and more difficult to even know what that curve may look like. This trend is being felt across both the public and private sectors; an Accenture survey found that only 6% of companies report feeling completely confident in their current abilities to foresee and respond to future disruption.
Given the unprecedented unpredictability created by even one issue – climate change – and the stakes for mankind, federal agencies need to expand their commitment to strategic foresight. Indicators of the future are all around us, and by embracing a strategic foresight mindset across federal government, we can more fully embrace, explore, and act on these findings.
However, there is another aspect of strategic foresight that we must consider as well. Traditionally, government has used strategic foresight to answer big questions and prepare for obstacles, such as with the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. However, they have made less frequent use of it as a creativity tool to spur more open-ended innovation – specifically, to consider and evaluate new approaches and work iteratively to improve and refine them. This type of thinking is critical to ensuring that we thrive as well as survive.
Why strategic foresight is important
Strategic foresight provides a framework for challenging assumptions and imagining new scenarios in today’s fast-moving world. Doing so helps leaders move forward with more confidence and less emotion, and take a proactive, rather than reactive, stance to new obstacles and trends.
Essential to strategic foresight is the concept of signals. According to the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a signal is a “a small or local innovation or disruption that has the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution.” These include new products, new policies, new technologies, events, issues, and more.
Often, the signals of change are all around us, but leaders fail to recognize them or act. For example, in 2008, the CEO of Blockbuster dismissed the then-emerging prominence of Netflix and Redbox: “Neither…are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” Blockbuster overlooked several key signals, such as the meteoric rise of new, more convenient distribution models for customers (i.e., first mailing DVDs and then online streaming), as well as the value of AI-driven personalization based on in-depth user data. Their resistance to change meant the company lost its dominance on at-home entertainment and eventually shuttered down.
Being attuned to signals can reap great rewards, though. In the 1970s, for example, Royal Dutch Shell’s Pierre Wack famously used scenario planning to anticipate oil prices surging and ultimately helped the company better weather the energy crisis. By challenging inward-looking biases, such as the belief that Western-dominated stability would always prevail, Wack’s team concluded that an energy crisis stemming from tensions in the Middle East was inevitable; this prediction helped the company proactively prepare for the challenges ahead, instead of being caught by surprise.
Nowadays, the urgency of uncovering and acting on signals is increasing, particularly for federal government:
- In our always-on, constantly connected society, agencies must react to events and obstacles quickly. Thus, there is a greater need to anticipate and prepare for change. Recent Accenture survey data found that 91% of federal executives report that their organization is innovating with an urgency and call to action this year.
- Our world is growing more complex due to the greater interdependence of systems. For example, organizations are currently reckoning with the fragility of global supply chains, which have been increasingly tested by pandemic-induced workforce shortages, weather disasters, and rapidly shifting consumption patterns over the past two years.
- Crises like climate change are increasing the frequency of seemingly random, disruptive “black swan” events. Alongside the known impact of climate change-induced disasters, the crisis will have other, secondary impacts that are signals for change – including an increase in human aggression and decrease in productivity.
- Long-anticipated trends are happening sooner and faster. Even when organizations may be paying attention to signals, unforeseen change can alter the timing. Consider how the pandemic accelerated discussions around remote and hybrid workplaces, making them widely common faster than many organizations anticipated.
Strategic foresight enables agencies to proactively prepare for these shifts and learn from the future. For example, the US Forest Service has adopted futures thinking to improve forest management and anticipate change, running its own Strategic Foresight and Rapid Response Group. The unit’s Forest Futures Horizon Scanning system, as described in a 2019 introductory report, seeks to “find, collect, and analyze the signals of change, and to identify emerging issues suggested by these signals that could affect forests, the field of forestry, and the Forest Service in the future.” By doing so, Forest Service decisionmakers can better prepare for varied futures and take timely action when and where necessary.
Strategic foresight can help explore specific problems and answer “What if?” questions. But applying an organization-wide futures thinking mindset has broader implications as well: It fosters greater creativity and innovation, and can help teams break out of narrow, siloed paths of thinking to explore new opportunities.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) posits that strategic foresight can support government policy making in three main ways:
- Better anticipation: to better anticipate changes that could emerge in the future
- Policy innovation: to reveal options for experimentation with innovative approaches
- Future-proofing: to stress-test existing or proposed strategies and policies
In other words, strategic foresight can be applied in a multitude of ways, including to discover new ideas, to explore potential scenarios, to map out possible outcomes, and to create new response plans.
Strategic foresight in action
At the Accenture Federal Studio, we recently challenged our own teams to apply strategic foresight to explore signals of change within a rapidly shifting and increasingly important topic – the future of work. Over 16 weeks, we analyzed a range of signals and identified 20 trends warranting further study.
To start, we made some basic assumptions: (1) We can never know what lies ahead, and (2) We must make sense of the future in the same way we make sense of the past — by telling stories about it. Then, as we work to understand these stories, we can better orient ourselves in the present and plan for what’s next. In order to structure our thinking from today to tomorrow, we applied the “Four Futures” framework to the 20 trends, ultimately brainstorming 80 scenarios along a quadrant of:
- Growth: A future that manifests the results of current trends and conditions, extrapolated forward.
- Collapse: A future in which major social systems are strained beyond the breaking point, causing system collapse and social disarray.
- Constraint: A future in which a core guiding value or purpose is used to organize society and control behavior.
- Transformation: A fundamental reorganization of a society or system that signals a break from previous systems.
What did we discover? Let’s look at one trend: how the future of the office will impact collaboration and employee engagement. The pandemic has shown that employees do not need to be in the same room to engage, collaborate, and produce great work. Fully remote collaboration has been tested at speed and scale over the past two years. Given this, future work environments will likely look very different than the past, with various factors creating a multitude of possible outcomes.
To test these outcomes, we asked: Will a physical office still be relevant in 5-10 years? How will office workers “go” to work in the future? Will we be face-to-face, or will a new interface emerge – and how will that impact employers’ strategies and employees’ work habits?
These are just highlights from our full exploration, but the scenarios underscore how the future can unfold in many different directions, based on an uncountable number of influences and interdependencies. Remember that it’s not just about what you personally think is plausible but expanding your perspective on what could be possible. After creating scenarios, the next step is to consider which potential futures might be preferrable, and which might be disastrous. Think through what strategies or actions you could take to steer toward or away from any of these scenarios.
We can never truly understand all the possible futures – but by stretching our thinking to explore both the futures we want and don’t want, and the ones that seem likely as well as unlikely, organizations can better prepare for whatever may come.
Where to start
As agencies look to adopt and scale strategic foresight, we recommend they begin by looking at how their culture and operations can best support this approach.
You have to accept that you are operating in an uncertain world, and understand that’s it statistically impossible to predict the future — even credentialed experts fail at it much of the time. This is particularly hard in government, with its bias against “fail fast” thinking. But that’s not a reason to throw your hands up and let anything happen; instead, let this uncertainty motivate your organization to be proactive and engaged with diverse signals and trends.
Surprising to some, the U.S. military has come to terms with this uncertainty. As MG George Franz (USA Ret.), now a managing director with Accenture Federal Services, notes, “good leaders are trained to balance the knowns and unknowns of any mission and create plans to mitigate these risks and exploit opportunities. Strategic foresight plays a huge role in illuminating the decision space.”
You must embrace uncertainty as a fact of life, instead of something that should be avoided at all costs; even the best-laid strategic plans cannot account for all of life’s unpredictable twists and turns. By adopting this thinking, and evangelizing it across your organization, leaders can create a culture that values exploring and preparing for diverse future scenarios. This ultimately leads to more resilient, adaptable operations.
Small-scale strategic foresight can help an organization strengthen this skill and make a business case as to why it’s valuable. However, if you choose to only use strategic foresight for small-scale, one-off situations, you must understand that there will be limitations to your success. Sustained efforts in futures thinking cannot remain siloed to be most effective. In this case, they may miss signals, or not be able to exert influence as needed.
Ultimately, the goal should be to embed strategic foresight into how an organization operates in a continuous and organic way. For example, you can bring together a cross-section of stakeholders from across the agency for a regular cadence of exploratory sessions to keep your organization alert and focused on all the possible signals that may impact it.
As you embed across the organization, set broad objectives that can serve as a North Star. This helps diverse stakeholders work toward a common goal while maintaining the flexibility needed for creative thinking.
Consider our above example on future work environments – now that we’ve generated these four possible outcomes, organizations can decide which is their preferred future and then begin asking the questions needed to work toward that. For example, remote enabling technology is key to the growth scenario – how can your organization make key investments to incentivize use of these tools? Burnout is a possible consequence of the constraint scenario; to combat this, how can you encourage a hybrid work model that meets all employees’ needs, either in-person or remote?
Then, prototype your ideas and begin testing them. This is important because the further off or more different the future is from now, the less tangible it may seem and thus harder to socialize with stakeholders. By bringing possible far-off futures to life, even in small ways – such as through an interactive experience or physical prototype – individuals across the agency can better understand the implications, their role in these possible futures, and what actions they can take now to either work toward or prevent that outcome.
For example, the US Forest Service developed IMPACT: Forestry Edition, a “serious board game designed to help forestry professionals and stakeholders think more broadly, critically, and creatively about the future of forestry.” Through the game, players can better understand individuals’ roles in achieving preferred futures.
You can establish regular signal scanning, and a set schedule for forecasting and strategizing. For example, your organization might find it most helpful to conduct exercises once a year ahead of annual planning.
Strategic foresight is often a relatively small investment that can pay back in spades. To assess the value of strategic foresight, agency leaders can look back at their efforts and ask questions like:
- What signals of change did we identify that might have previously gone unnoticed?
- Which of these signals have the potential to turn into “flags” – or drivers of change with a strong likely impact on our customers or industry?
- What new actions did we take based on those signals?
- What signals did we miss, and why?
- Has strategic foresight helped balance our innovation portfolio? On a scale from low-risk, incremental innovation, to higher-risk, transformational innovation, how has strategic foresight helped our agency evaluate what change is necessary to optimize mission success?
By asking these questions, and consistently tracking how strategic foresight is adding value to the agency, federal leaders can build a stronger business case to further embed it across the organization.
Face the future
To be most effective, strategic foresight requires investment from across the agency. The required mindset shift begins with individual steps, though.
Federal leaders can start adopting everyday futurist habits now. Proactively look for signals of change – for example, regularly ask yourself how today’s news headlines could lead to new, unexpected futures for your organization. Intentionally think through what the future may look like from your customers’ or stakeholders’ perspectives, to challenge your own ingrained assumptions. Identify potential collaborators within your organization and have informal conversations about what futures they foresee.
The future holds increasingly complex challenges for federal agencies, as well as opportunities to create value in new, unexpected ways. Like the question of if the flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a tornado, countless elements will go into the creation of these challenges and opportunities, most of which may remain unknown. Yet, by using strategic foresight, federal leaders can expand their view of the drivers of change and challenge their assumptions on the scope of possible futures. In doing so, they can create an organization that is ultimately more resilient and more innovative – to better meet mission needs, no matter what the future holds.